For once, Hecker has not conquered; he has submitted.
Some artists weave their influences into tapestries, proudly displaying colors interwoven with previous palettes. Others conquer the sounds they consume, acting as invading emperors and molding noise to their whim. Tim Hecker is firmly in the second camp. His meditations on ambient, chamber and even pop music are crafted by a willful, powerful mind. While exploring these genres, there is never any doubt that the music is Hecker. Even comparing sounds as desperate as the bubble-bath glitch of Radio Amor to the clockwork nightmare of Virgins, it was always instantly apparent that Hecker is behind the transcendent doom booming through the speakers.
But Konoyo presents a different challenge. Here he worked with Tokyo Gakuso, an ensemble that plays gagaku, a classical form of Japanese music that translates roughly to “elegant music.” And elegant it is, but in an eerie, troubling fashion. It is grace in mourning, in the face of death, in wandering into the afterlife. Hecker has said Konoyo was inspired by a series of conversations he had with a friend who recently passed away. His music has always been comfortable hurtling toward the void, but even on sensory crushers like Virgins or Ravedeath 1972, there was a sense of careful machine logic. But Hecker wasn’t held away in some Icelandic fortress of solitude for this. In working with Tokyo Gakuso, he had a much more democratic method of composing, and it shows. Drone music is generally unconcerned with a sense of rhythm, but Konoyo actively waltzes in and out of proper tempos, just due to human nature fiddling with the electronics, making the computer dance along. Opening track “This Life” begins with a series of harrowing, sweeping flutes that bring to mind police sirens or speeding jets. The latter image becomes more disconcerting as a throbbing, bursting bass bombs from below in its wake. This steely web of noise is interrupted by a wall of clanging sounds, chiming mournfully like a funeral procession. As the cacophony grows, each separate layer seems out of time with the next addition, but it eventually becomes cohesive through blunt force trauma.
“Is a Rose Petal of the Dying Crimson Light” is a sighing, near ambient track, rippling with humming synths and detuned pianos. It could have just sunk in its own meandering beauty, but the pleading cry of a ryūteki flute fades into the sound, never quite deciding if it’s preforming a duet with Hecker’s depressed electronics or hovering above the murk. “Keyed Out” similarly starts as a jagged mess of decaying tech gurgling in the bass, but is soon joined by the haunting, high cry of flutes which dispel the opening miasma and force Hecker’s programing to play by their stately logic. Hecker cuts and introduces samples abruptly, including a biting, scratching string that nearly becomes unbearable due to atonal tendencies and the textural violence before the background envelopes the whole, suffocating the sound.
Listeners who aren’t familiar with gagaku might hear snippets reminiscent of the score to Akira. That’s not a bad introduction, especially with the images Hecker seems to be conjuring up. These are lumbering beasts, so massive in scope and scale they seem to be beyond mortal comprehension. There is a feeling that whatever energy is being channeled here views us as we view ants. There are moments (the opening of “This Life” in particular) that reach and maintain the sublime by its true definition: something that inspires awe not just for its beauty, but for its terror. A truly awesome sound doesn’t just captivate through aesthetic brilliance, but through a sort of primal fear, triggering a helpless reaction of insignificance.
To this end, Hecker either fills space or wields it like a weapon, but Konoyo’s relationship with that mindset is gentle and despondent. It’s not directly about death, but there is a tenderness to the quiet moments that brings to mind a wake. Konoyo means “the world over here” and the closing track “Across to Anoyo” is a mirror to “This Life,” all hinting at a journey to the end. The second half of “A Sodium Codec Haze” is populated by a swirling chorus of chimes and flutes, positioned so they completely cocoon the ears, forming a tunnel of sorts. These are bright, lively, but ultimately somber sounds, accented by the low, dower drones behind them. It sounds like the bridge into somewhere else.
Konoyo was recorded at a Buddhist temple and things much older than us have inhabited the album. For once, Hecker has not conquered; he has submitted. Whether the gorgeous, tumbling music is an ascent or descent, we’re probably not meant to know.